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guest review: Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky (audio), trans. by Sandra Smith – from Pops

I have an exciting guest reviewer today: my father. He’s off for the season now – he leaves Houston for the hot months (must be nice to be retired!) and does all his favorite things: running, riding his bike, camping and hiking and visiting beautiful outdoor settings all over. Not to mention, visiting all the great craft beer and brewpubs he can find. He’ll settle for a few months at a time in some hip small town with the right combination of culture, outdoors, and beer; and he’ll move on for the next attraction. This summer I sent him off with a small collection of audiobooks for all that driving, and he has hesitatingly agreed to see about writing up his reactions to them for me to post here. Today he’s sharing with us his thoughts on Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky. Pops, you’re on.

This is not a major work, but is indeed unique, intriguing and noteworthy in a number of respects.

Synopsis: this is a work of fiction written contemporaneously with the author’s own experience during the 1940 German onslaught in France and the subsequent occupation and collaboration. Unlike many journal-type works from the period, this is stylishly written with a now-familiar formula using a cast of fictional, intertwining characters to personalize incidents and experiences amidst real-life events. (Among a number of intriguing questions raised by this work – was this formula at all established at the time?)

For me, this reading was reminiscent of Winds of War (Herman Wouk, 1971); while not nearly as ambitious in scope (actually, a strength), Suite Francaise was as engaging both for the characters as well as for revealing historical nuance. I thoroughly enjoyed it, spent time reflecting over it, and was left wishing for the narrative to continue.

So – what’s exceptional about it?

First, much of the impact derives from knowing the author’s own story and how the book came to life. Born 1903, she was a Russian Jewish immigrant to France (1918), converted to the Catholic Church (1939), published numerous works of renown before the war (including one brought to film), was denied French citizenship in 1938 due to Jewish heritage, and has since been criticized for being a self-hating Jew. She was in the course of writing this work as events unfolded, expecting to create a novel in 5 parts. She finished two parts, was denounced by French collaborators and deported to Auschwitz where she died within a month. Many more of her writings were published since the war. But her daughters retained this notebook manuscript, keeping it unread until 1990 due to anxiety over the expected pain of reading her wartime “journal” – only then, before donating the pages to an archive, did they realize what powerful words those pages held. Written 1940-42, it was published in 2004, acclaimed, translated and read internationally.

Reading with this background, there are numerous elements that may gain impact or raise questions either in the context of her own experience or a clear sightline to contemporary thinking of the time.

  • There are a number of musings by characters and narrator about the future during and after the war that raised chills for me knowing they were written so early in the war.
  • The story contrasts individuals’ different experiences of war, from common civilians feeling powerless and distant from the passions of aggression versus the anonymous, indistinct elites and politicians driving the conflict.
  • She sharply depicts still-thriving class contradictions that threaten to surmount the national conflict: aristocrats of mixed national heritage, communists, resistance fighters, the Church, city vs provinces, villagers vs farmers.
  • There is one passage that strongly evokes scenes from Lord of the Flies. This includes one of several “arbitrary” non war-related deaths in the story. I was left wondering about the origin and meaning of these.
  • Aristocrats and other characters tending to be collaborators make reference to their sympathies opposing the advance of Jews, communists and Freemasons (a triad central to Nazi propaganda). Freemasons?
  • How the French characters respond to the war depends greatly on whether they experienced the “first war” only 25 years (and one young generation) earlier, or the 1870 war (with Prussia, resulting in a victorious German Empire); for the entire society the immediacy of both was stunning.
  • As often occurs with translated works (and in this case the separation of 60+ years), numerous passages had me wondering about the author’s full meaning.

Well you’ve sold me on needing to read this book; and I certainly didn’t know any of that backstory, which does indeed enrich the experience. Thanks for the guest post! Please do give us more as you keep listening!

2 Responses

  1. […] It’s taken me a while to follow up on Pops’s recommendation (see his guest review here), but I believe you’re right, Pops, this one is worthwhile. I had some trouble choosing lines […]

  2. […] earlier published a guest review of this audiobook by my father. He did an excellent job of telling the backstory, so I’m just […]

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